Laotian Hmong girl in Thai refugee camp: Ben Barber photo.
Delayed Dominoes Fall in Southeast Asia
By Ben Barber
Sept. 8, 2017
In the 1960s and 1970s we sent 2.7 million American boys to fight the communists in Vietnam – in rice paddies, temples and deep jungle canopy far from the American landscape.
Our generals and politicians said We HAD TO FIGHT because if South Vietnam fell to the communists, the dreaded domino theory predicted that next to fall would be Thailand, Singapore, Delhi and the Bronx.
Well it never happened. Even after the communists in 1975 took Saigon, Phnom Penh and Vientiane, the only dominoes falling were grey and unproductive socialist systems. These planned economies took a decade to smell the coffee. Then they decided to end poverty and join free market capitalism.
But now a new wave of dominoes is falling – these are countries that want the profits from capitalism without all the lip from bloggers and democracy groups.
The result is a rising wave of authoritarian regimes from Burma to Thailand to Indonesia.
Across much of Southeast Asia, a blanket of authoritarianism has fallen in recent days and years. Journalists are being jailed or exiled. Human rights groups are banned and shuttered. Opposition political leaders are arrested, beaten or barred from publishing or disseminating views contrary to those of the government.
And it seems that the Trump Administration has let the world know it will not push for human rights across the globe and only push for policies that benefit US interests. He stated it first for the Middle East but the lesson was heard clearly in Asia.
Much as the iron curtain spread across Eastern Europe after World War II, the terrifying and stultifying fabric of repression is spreading like a virus across countries once thought to have escaped the dictatorship of Asian authoritarianism.
The new repression is spreading like a bloody cloak silencing the faint buds of democracy that had emerged in recent years. Examples include:
1- Vietnam, where all free speech is under attack by the still-communist government.
2- Thailand, which had free and fair elections and a relatively boisterous free press in the 80s and 90s, has now stepped back into military rule, silencing critics. Last month, the junta drove the deposed prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra into exile.
3- Laos, where poverty and underdevelopment allowed tourism to flourish but outspoken critics of the government face prison or death.
4- Cambodia a few days ago arrested the main opposition figure Kem Sokha , closed the independent English-language newspaper Cambodia Daily, and barred a dozen radio and TV stations from broadcasting Voice of America programs in Khmer language.
5- Burma (also called Myanmar) was the darling of the West for releasing Aung San Suu Kyi after 20 years in house arrest. But she was silent last month when Burmese troops opened fire on thousands of minority Rohingya Muslims, forcing over 100,000 into neighboring Bangladesh.
6- The Philippines has a leader who refuses to accept any criticism of his bloody purge of suspected drug addicts, leaving thousands dead in the streets without trials.
7- Indonesia, where US support was wildly popular after the 2004 Tsunami killed an estimated 230,000 people, is seeing Islamic militancy spread.
Ironically, the spreading authoritarianism in Asia comes after the big battle for freedom appeared to have been won. The dominoes fell in reverse. In the late 1970s and 1980s, communists were in retreat. The Soviet Union lost a bloody colonial war in Afghanistan, the Soviet bloc collapsed, the Berlin Wall fell. Instead of communist dominoes spreading West, free-wheeling Western style capitalism spread East.
I recall visiting Saigon a decade after it fell to the North Vietnamese army, and finding food, clothing and even toothbrushes all for sale in the shadowy black market. These goods from fluffy children’s pajamas to flashlights all came stamped made in Thailand or Singapore or Malaysia.
Meanwhile, the austere, rigid communist party victors could barely feed the country and were forced to buy toothpaste and soap in the black market.
So the communists abandoned socialism and embraced free markets, allowing farmers to sell their rice to the top bidder. Vietnam shot up in one or two years to be the second largest global exporter of rice.
Now the dominoes are again falling but it’s just what Gen. Westmoreland and other war hawks feared. The new leaders in Asia are no friends of freedom.
What is going on? Some 55,000 American boys shed their blood and died fighting for freedom and a non-communist way of life. Now whatever success we may have had in spreading US and European values seems to be falling into darkness.
I fear that there are two simple reasons for this trend.
The first is China. Its growing economic and military power led many smaller nations to adopt China’s unholy marriage of crony capitalism and abject groveling before the gods of authority.
Recently, Vietnam scrapped plans to drill for oil and gas in the South China Sea because China claimed those waters. The Philippines, which objects to China building fortified islands on coral reefs a hundred miles from Manila (and 1000 miles from China), won an International court ruling that China has no claim to the contested waters. But Manila is reluctant to openly challenge China which simply rejects the court ruling.
Who wants to fight such a bully? In regional meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), all criticism of China is silenced.
Which brings me to the second reason for the spread of authoritarianism. Many of the ASEAN nations are having second thoughts abut democracy these days. Strongman rulers across the region do not want US NGOS and human rights advocates stirring up local liberal thinking.
In part this is because the history of democracy in Southeast Asia is limited and recent. A few elections does not erase the cultural memory of centuries under kings, dictators, sultans and colonial occupiers.
So instead of criticizing China for jailing lawyers and writers favoring democracy, the leaders from Thailand to Burma are copying that authoritarian behavior.
Indeed, the dominoes are finally falling. And despite free markets, the general trend is towards crony capitalism, brutal repression, and fear.
Democracy – that troublesome Western innovation – has long been considered by political Asian leaders such as Singapore’s late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to be incompatible with “Asian values” such as deference to authority.